Two cautionary tales

Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage. Lyric Theatre, Sydney, December 3, 2014

Beyond Desire, By Neil Rutherford and Kieran Drury. Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, November 26.

WHO can tell why a modest little rom-com such as Dirty Dancing wins a passionate and lasting following while others are tossed on to the cinema scrapheap within a fortnight? As American writer William Goldman so sagely observed about the movie business, “nobody knows anything”.

Made in 1987 but set in 1963, “before President Kennedy got shot, before the Beatles came”, Dirty Dancing – the film – is writer Eleanor Bergstein’s sweet American coming-of-age, breaking-loose story lightly seasoned with social-conscience issues and a dash of class conflict. It has attractive stars in Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, a soundtrack of popular songs and lots of locked-loins dance. The critics were lukewarm.

The audience, however, loved seeing a bright, warm-hearted girl getting together with a sexy rebel and latched on to two things: an overhead dance lift that made the young woman look as if she could fly and that much-loved film trope, a manly but sensitive public declaration of affection. “No one puts Baby in a corner.” Ker-ching.

KirbyBurgess and Kurt Phelan in Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage. Photo: Jeff Busby

Kirby Burgess (Baby Houseman) and Kurt Phelan (Johnny Castle) in Eleanor Bernstein’s Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage. Photo: Jeff Busby

The stage show, a version of which premiered in Sydney 10 years ago and has since enjoyed wide international success, reproduces these moments and much else besides. Key images from the film are created with video projections, dialogue is transferred unchanged and line readings are thriftily recycled. There’s even a wig for star Kirby Burgess that mimics Grey’s abundant hair. Even more fundamentally, there is no process of recreation; no transference of the story from the medium of film to that of musical theatre. Music is either part of the soundtrack, presented as live entertainment at the holiday retreat in which the story is set or – and this is very illogical – sung by minor characters.

So yes, on one level Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage is doggedly faithful to its source. On another it’s a gaudy puppet-show, minus the fun. As seen on the big Lyric Theatre stage, Dirty Dancing has exactly the wrong degree of exaggeration to fill the space. Minor characters are caricatures, leads Kurt Phelan and Burgess are directed as Swayze and Grey clones and the action has been expanded to accommodate choreography of a particularly stridentl and vulgar kind. Everything falls into the abyss, being neither intimate enough for the story nor lavishly appointed enough for sweep-you-away theatrical spectacle.

There’s not a scrap of genuine visceral or emotional connection. The lascivious hip-twirling and arched backs sure do get the audience squealing but the charge has all the allure of a buck’s night. The use of the body is to dance – is supposed to be to dance – what tubes of oil paint are to an artist: the medium through which something is expressed. Otherwise it’s gymnastics. In Dirty Dancing we saw the equivalent of paint being thrown extravagantly on to a canvas every which way. Colourful, without doubt, but with not a skerrick of emotional value or meaning. And alas, four couples distributed around a too-large stage do not constitute a thrilling ensemble. Another ker-ching, which is the sound of a production saving on cast costs.

No wonder Phelan’s Johnny Castle looks so tense. Phelan can move but his performance is all on the surface. Burgess – by far the best thing in the production – has warmth but, to quote the immortal wisdom of Velma Kelly in Chicago, she can’t do it alone.

Dirty Dancing has no life, no spark and no joy but I’ll acknowledge this: it does know how to press a button. Ker-ching.

A week before seeing Dirty Dancing I was at Hayes Theatre Co to see a very different kind of musical theatre. Many of my colleagues disliked Beyond Desire intensely; I think they were a little harsh on a new work (albeit one that has been in development for 25 years). Let’s put it this way. I would infinitely prefer to see Beyond Desire again than sit through Dirty Dancing another time. That’s not to say Beyond Desire doesn’t have problems – it does, many of them to do with a concentration of roles in one hand. I’ll get back to that. But first, the show as it is.

Phillip Lowe and Blake Bowden in Beyond Desire. Photo: Oliver Toth

Phillip Lowe and Blake Bowden in Beyond Desire. Photo: Oliver Toth

Anthony, a young university graduate, is recalled to England from holiday in Italy to find his father, Edward, has died. In short order his mother marries Edward’s business partner and Anthony finds himself confused, melancholy and suspicious that his father’s death was not suicide as the wallopers concluded. No wonder, when Edward is busily dropping damaging hints from his current residence, the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns.

Hamlet gives Beyond Desire most of its characters and plot, which are then fashioned into an Edwardian-era music drama spiced up with a pinch of E.M. Forster’s Maurice and a big helping of Upstairs, Downstairs. The whole is enveloped in the claustrophobic atmosphere of an Agatha Christie country-house murder mystery and the unifying theme of Beyond Desire is that everyone has secrets (a theme, incidentally, that extends to behind the scenes in this production; the clues are there for anyone who cares to seek them out). At the end, homage is paid to Christie’s The Mousetrap when the cast begs the audience not to reveal an important plot twist to others.

Fair enough, although devotees of Hamlet and aficionados of the mystery novel – and yes, a Venn diagram of these groups is possible – will have little difficulty in working out what’s what quite early. This of course can be part of the enjoyment so I wouldn’t mark Beyond Desire down on that account. Book writer Neil Rutherford has rightly planted appropriate clues. Much more problematic is the show’s lack of inner tension despite its juicy elements of sudden death, family discord, forbidden love, the class divide and the supernatural. Rutherford has paid close attention to the forms of his inspirations but has not captured their essence. The lean muscularity of the best mystery fiction and the vitality of popular Edwardian entertainment are missing. Earnestness and reverence prevail over the occasional welcome flash of knowingness about the many appropriations.

I did enjoy the moment when the maid, Emily, is sent to the garden to talk to Anthony and glean what afflicts him (well, in slightly different terms), but borrowing so extensively and obviously from famous sources would seem to require a sharper sense of awareness about it. Nancye Hayes’s housekeeper Martha, delivered with Maggie Smith-esque acidity, comes closest to the mark.

Likeable performances from the cast of eight, led by Blake Bowden’s lusciously sung Anthony, are some recompense. And while the lyrics tend to deliver too much plot and not enough character, the score – heavily influenced by early 20th century composers – is lush, melodic and gorgeously orchestrated for piano (played by music director Peter Rutherford), violin, cello, clarinet, harp and horn. The colours are exquisite, although an iffy sound balance on opening night meant it wasn’t always easy to understand what was being said when text was in competition with underscoring.

Had there been a more successful realisation of all the elements – direction, book, lyrics, music, orchestration, set design, lighting – Beyond Desire would still not have been a music-theatre piece for the ages, but would have been an enjoyable piece of light entertainment. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which won the Tony award for best musical this year, has absolutely no pretensions to being other than bright and witty and succeeds delightfully (I saw it earlier this year).

And why was this more successful realisation elusive in Beyond Desire? It’s hard not to think that Rutherford took on far too many creative roles. Among other duties, he wrote the book and lyrics and he directed. The program reveals the presence of two unusually named men, Luther Forinder as set designer and Leon Ferrithurd as orchestrator. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that they are anagrams. Given the length of time Rutherford has been working on Beyond Desire he may not have had to do everything at once – many of the elements may have been completed to his satisfaction before he started directing the show, but therein is the catch. Seeing the show come together in rehearsal, Rutherford was in the position of having to discuss any problems with himself. Would he overrule himself? Would he argue with himself? Could he stand back from himself to make a decision that might not necessarily please himself?

Rutherford’s passion for his project undoubtedly clouded his judgment. It’s a shame.

Beyond Desire ends December 14.

After its Sydney season Dirty Dancing moves to Melbourne from March 1; Brisbane from May 27; Perth from August 2.

Versions of these reviews appeared in The Australian on November 28 and December 5. 

There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow

In March 2008, when I was still on staff at The Australian, I wrote a piece about musical theatre ahead of an Opera Australia production of My Fair Lady. With OA and John Frost opening The King and I in Brisbane, with Melbourne and Sydney seasons to follow, I pulled it out of the vault.

THE golden age of musical theatre started quietly. A young man was heard offstage – it was March 31, 1943 – extolling the joys of life and of that day in particular. “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,” he sang, a cappella. “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow …” Oklahoma!, and a new era, was under way.

The show was the first collaboration between composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, and its opening is one of the most inspired, and concise, pieces of scene and character setting in all musical theatre.

Hammerstein wrote the lyrics first, and with those first eight words (of which two are definite or indefinite articles) established an indelible image of open farmland on a sunny morning and, by association, the pleasant, optimistic nature of the man who notices such things. The rhythm of the line is clear and uncomplicated, and Rodgers supports it with a sweet melody that strolls along as easily as an old-fashioned country boy.

All this takes perhaps 10 seconds to get across.

Oklahoma! has a perfect structure and the score is one of the greatest light music scores ever written,” says David King, head of musical theatre at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

Most of the competition for greatness comes from Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves, with Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music coming from the pair in the space of 16 years. But they didn’t entirely corner the market. The dream run in the 1940s and 50s included Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady, Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls and Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story, remarkable for the quality of their source material (from George Bernard Shaw, Damon Runyon and Shakespeare respectively) and the brilliance of their music and lyrics. More recent musicals might have one or two hit songs; shows in this group string them together like well-matched pearls. Expensive ones, too. If you’d invested $1000 in the original Oklahoma! your return would have been $2.5million.

That Oklahoma! has enduring appeal more than 60 years after its premiere attests to its quality: in 2008 there would be about 500 productions worldwide, including one at Perth-based WAAPA. But it goes further than mere popularity. Rodgers and Hammerstein set the standard and style for an era. The shows created in the space of little more than two decades, from 1943 to 1964, when Fiddler on the Roof opened, are the undisputed classics of the genre.

Writer Peter Stone [explains] Hammerstein’s use of the “conditional ballad”, where love doesn’t happen miraculously but is expressed as being in the future, or a possibility, or at one remove.

Gerald Bordman, author of American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle, heads his chapter on this period The American Musical as a Conscious Art Form. What would become the musical started in the mid-1800s and developed out of popular theatrical traditions including operetta, melodrama, burlesque and revue.

Most commentators nominate 1866 as the start of the native art form, when a touring French ballet company found itself without a theatre and enterprising producers combined the talents of the danseuses with a melodrama that did have a theatre, The Black Crook. The young women of the ballet weren’t the only ones with legs, and the show ran and ran.

In the post-war 1920s the taste was for entertainment; in the 30s theatregoers wanted either escape from the Depression or socially relevant drama because of it. There was, however, a cluster of supremely talented people working in New York who would bring the light and shade together.

Hammerstein is a pivotal figure. His grandfather was a New York theatre district pioneer and, with Jerome Kern, he wrote the groundbreaking Show Boat (1927). With its racially integrated cast and a troubling theme of miscegenation, it foreshadowed the kind of work Hammerstein would do when he joined forces with Rodgers 15 years later. He was also an important mentor to Sondheim, who would much later reign over the high end of the market.

And Hammerstein was a lyricist of exceptional and subtle gifts. In their book Broadway: The American Musical, Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon quote writer Peter Stone on Hammerstein’s use of the “conditional ballad”, where love doesn’t happen miraculously but is expressed as being in the future, or a possibility, or at one remove. In Carousel it’s If I Loved You, in Show Boat it’s Only Make Believe, in Oklahoma! there’s People Will Say We’re in Love.

Just how different Oklahoma! was from its immediate predecessors is illustrated by something that quickly passed into music theatre legend. A talent scout for the critic Walter Winchell went to New Haven to see a show, at that stage called Away We Go, which was having its out-of-town tryout. He cabled to Winchell the following assessment: No legs, no jokes, no chance!

The audience saw it differently, happy to view work that not only entertained and thrilled but often challenged as well. Oklahoma! became the first music theatre phenomenon, running for more than 2000 performances on Broadway.

The new breed of creators didn’t shy away from themes such as gang warfare (West Side Story), racism (South Pacific) and dispossession (Fiddler on the Roof), but it was in the context of well-made theatre that also provided the popular music of the day: Maria, Some Enchanted Evening, If I Were a Rich Man.

The genius, says Andrew Greene, who conducts My Fair Lady for Opera Australia in June, lies in the fact that “in (the classic) musicals it’s about the team: wonderful music, words, book and great choreography and direction, all coming together to create a wonderful night in the theatre”. No longer was the piece designed to revolve around a big-name star who sucked up most of the oxygen. Everything had to be in the service of the whole.

When a [Cole] Porter acquaintance praised Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Some Enchanted Evening, Porter replied insouciantly that it was indeed powerful, “if you can imagine it taking two men to write one song”.

Michael Grandage, director of the Donmar Warehouse production in London of Guys and Dolls, which is being staged in Melbourne, points to the detail and cohesion of its book. “From a directorial point of view, you’re able to approach a musical like Guys and Dolls exactly as you would one of the most perfectly made plays,” he says.

As with most classic periods, the golden age of the American musical was created by a relatively small number of people. They included composer and conductor Bernstein, the youthful Sondheim (as lyricist), producer David Merrick and director Hal Prince. The stellar Cole Porter and Irving Berlin wrote words as well as music: when a Porter acquaintance praised Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Some Enchanted Evening, Porter replied insouciantly that it was indeed powerful, “if you can imagine it taking two men to write one song”.

Crucially, dance became a force for concentrated storytelling, often psychologically revealing, for which Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins can take much of the credit. De Mille’s dream ballet for Oklahoma! and another for Carousel were so influential that she perhaps never received quite her due: soon everyone was doing what she did.

Robbins and de Mille came from the classical ballet world and didn’t see it as slumming from their duties at American Ballet Theatre. In fact Robbins, a forceful character who directed as well as choreographed, got the idea that became West Side Story while studying at the Actors Studio in New York, where Marlon Brando was among his peers. The exhilarating Act I Mambo in the re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet isn’t there for colour and movement. It reveals the depth of rivalry between the Puerto Rican and American gangs and, in the setting of a social dance, brings Tony and Maria together.

The porous divide between high art and the commercial theatre was manifest in a version of Aida, using Verdi’s music but translated to an American Confederacy setting and called My Darlin’ Aida. Obviously it didn’t enter the pantheon, but it does point to a general taste for music written for a more classic tradition of vocal training. Opera singer Ezio Pinza had huge success as Emile in South Pacific, and My Fair Lady called for a gifted soprano and got one in Julie Andrews. Rising opera star Taryn Fiebig will sing the role for Opera Australia.

OA’s chief executive Adrian Collette says the strong book is central to the appeal of My Fair Lady. It’s adapted from “a tough and polemical play by George Bernard Shaw … what the music unfailingly brings to it is the potential for romance. It keeps its essential ambiguity to the very end, but overlays it with this wonderfully romantic music.”

Greene says American musicals have been part of the lighter repertoire in European opera houses for many years, and is pleased to see OA tackling My Fair Lady after many years of Gilbert and Sullivan (OA has also staged Fiddler on the Roof).

“[Frederick] Loewe was amazing. He was a direct descendant of a 19th-century lieder composer of Austrian descent. We find him not only being able to write wonderful romantic-style pop tunes. He was able to [write in the manner of] the British music-hall style for My Fair Lady – Get Me to the Church on Time, With a Little Bit of Luck – and also something like They Call the Wind Maria from Paint Your Wagon. He was a musical chameleon.”

Like all movements, this one was finite. Times, tastes and methods changed. A show such as Cabaret (1966) mostly presented its songs not as rising out of ordinary activity but within the context of the Kit Kat Klub where Sally Bowles worked. A Chorus Line (1975) stripped away all the trappings and was a more or less plotless show about people trying to get into a show.

The bubble had very much burst by the Broadway season of 1967-68. William Goldman in his book The Season saw everything that year. There were 14 new musicals and only one hit: the endearing but chaotic Hair. To come: the rock musical, Sondheim (a kind of one-man style), the British “popera” invasion spearheaded by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh, Disneyfication and the jukebox musical.

It’s hard to see anything other than Sondheim lasting another 50 years but that doesn’t stop people from trying, year after year, to write the next hit. King says the New York Music Theatre Festival each year premieres about 40 new musicals – “there’s an enormous amount of stuff written” – and a few composers, Adam Guettel (Rodgers’s grandson) and Michael John LaChiusa chief among them, are writing works of note.

And a Broadway that can offer, simultaneously, musical versions of Frank Wedekind’s wildly controversial 1891 play dealing with youthful sexuality, Spring Awakening, and the perky Legally Blonde – King calls it imaginative and witty – is far from being dead, no matter how much people hanker for the glory days and start reading it the last rites.

The King and I, presented by Opera Australia and John Frost, QPAC, Brisbane, until June 1. Melbourne, June 10-August 17; Sydney, September 7-November 1.

THE BEST OF THE BEST FROM THE GOLDEN AGE

Oklahoma!, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, choreography by Agnes de Mille, 1943

On the Town, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, developed from Jerome Robbins’s ballet Fancy Free for American Ballet Theatre, 1944

Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein, choreography by Agnes de Mille, 1945

Annie Get Your Gun, Irving Berlin, 1946

Kiss Me Kate, Cole Porter, 1948

South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1949

Guys and Dolls, Frank Loesser, 1950

The King and I, Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1951

My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, 1956

West Side Story, music by Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, 1957

The Sound of Music, Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1959

Gypsy, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sondheim, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, 1959

Fiddler on the Roof, by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, 1964